5 Myths Americans Believe About Vietnam

1. Religion is not tolerated in Vietnam.

Quite the contrary! Sometimes I read stories on the web about religious persecution in Vietnam, but what I see here in Ho Chi Minh City is a very religious people, far more religious in general than Americans. People here will nearly all say they are either Catholic or Buddhist; it’s hard to find anyone who would call themselves Agnostic or Atheistic- I haven’t met one yet.

The Catholic Church is one of the biggest property owners in Ho Chi Minh City. There are huge, newly built churches everywhere. I can see a gimongous church being built in the distance from the window where I’m sitting right now. In the evenings and on Sundays there are crowds of people at all the churches, often spilling out into the street and adding to the traffic mayhem. The most popular tourist attraction in Saigon is a cathedral- the Notre-Dame Cathedral in District 1.

There are also Buddhist temples in every neighborhood; many of them are huge. Thich Nhat Hanh, the rock star of Buddhist monks who was living in exile in France for many years, recently returned to tour Vietnam with an entourage of over 300 monks.

Granted, there are conflicts between the Vietnamese government and some religious leaders who get involved in politics. I don’t know the details of these conflicts but I’d venture to say they involve only a tiny minority of religious people. In the past, certainly there has been severe religious persecution in Vietnam, but things have changed a lot. The official government line is that religion is free and accessible to all, and I haven’t seen anything different.

2. The Vietnamese hate Americans because of “The American War.”

My own experience is only in the south, and it may be different in the north, but what I have experienced would actually be the opposite. Even when I first came to Vietnam as a tourist in 1996, I never heard or felt anything but tremendous love and respect for America and Americans.

To the Vietnamese, just like to people in developing countries everywhere, American is the promised land, the land of opportunity. Nearly every Vietnamese family has at least one member living in the USA, so America is the country that is taking care of their loved ones.

Unlike Americans, especially baby boomers, who will never get past the Vietnam war, the Vietnamese have gotten over it. The bulk of the Vietnamese population, it’s own baby boom, is only in their mid-20’s. Their parents have stories but most people are too young to remember the war.

Also consider Vietnamese history. Americans don’t have much of a history, but the Vietnamese collective memory goes back 5000 years. The Chinese occupied Vietnam for 1000 years. France occupied Vietnam for 100 years. America was here for all of 30 years, merely a small blip in Vietnamese history. Contrary to Americans’ sense of self-importance, the American episode isn’t all that significant. (I don’t know how accurate …